Life With Picasso
by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
image of Life With Picasso book
In Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, there were four themes of conflict as it focuses on Picasso’s life during the 10 year period he was with Francoise Gilot: Picasso v. Himself, Picasso v. Francoise, Picasso v. Art, and Francoise v. Herself.

Picasso v. Himself

As most artists do, Pablo Picasso saw himself as fundamentally different from other people. This manifested in moodiness and selfishness. His attempt to satisfy his moods allowed him to collect two ongoing prizes over the course of his life: women and other artists (predominantly male ones). The former was a prop for his external life and the latter was one for his internal life. These props have a relationship with him as a figure, but their relationship with him stops short of interrupting his comfort and pride.

As comes with the calling of an artist, Picasso figured he was someone who should use his gift against the "established order", and this turned him into a contrarian. In his eyes, there would always be tension between the creative thinker and society. An artist’s output is seen as a threat (perhaps more so historically than currently), and therefore the artist will carry their own internal tension with himself and with the world as long as they live.

Francoise recalls the way this attitude invaded their shared life:

I knew by now that although Pablo had been receiving the world’s adulation for at least 30 years before I met him, he was the most solitary of men within that inner world that shut him off from the army of admirers and sycophants that surrounded him. ‘Of course people like me; they even love me,’ he complained one afternoon when I was trying to break the spell of pessimism I found engulfing him when I arrived. ‘But in the same way they like chicken. Because I nourish them. But who nourishes me?’ I never told him so, but I thought that I could. I knew I couldn’t carry the full burden of that solitude, which at times seemed crushing to him, but I felt I could lighten it through my presence.

But Picasso’s burden was deeper than the public image versus private image of himself. It was bigger than just him. His own words, later in the book, reveal that it has more to do with the persistent barriers all artists have to face:

“So this business about defending and freeing culture is absurd. One can defend culture in a broad, general sense, if you mean by that the heritage of the past, but the right to free expression is something one seizes, not something one is given. It isn’t a principle one can lay down as something that should exist. The only principle involved is that if it does exist, it exists to be used against the established order.
People reach the status of artist only after crossing the maximum number of barriers.”

Picasso v. Francoise

Francoise was Pablo’s third lover. They were 40 years apart; she met him, then 61, when she was 21. At that point, he had had multiple children and was jaded from his relationships with their mothers, which spilled a lot of tension into his relationship with Francoise. She dropped everything, left her family to live and build a life with this larger-than-life artist figure, but he didn’t seem to respect so much as to expect this decision. She was expected to assimilate to and learn from him. She became the soundboard for his soliloquies and the manager of his anger. She sacrificed her mental and emotional resources for him, so much so that on the day her water broke before their firstborn arrived, he demanded their driver take him to the World Peace Conference he was scheduled to make an appearance at before going back for her to drop her off at the hospital. Francoise describes her role to Pablo as a seismograph at one point, one that “recorded all the quakes and tremors from Pablo’s direction,” and that those outside their relationship could only benefit from the “equilibrium” she created.

Picasso v. Art

For all his shortcomings in his personal life, I can’t disqualify the credentials he created for himself in the art world. Not only did he lead the movement of different styles, he was also open to new mediums. He fostered his skills in pottery and sculpture, in addition to painting. He had artist friends in high places who could lend him the physical and mental resources to try his hand at something new: the supplies to improve at ceramics, the language to talk about art.

Pablo had always liked to surround himself with writers and poets, beginning with the days of Guillame Apollinaire and Max Jacob. That is one reason, I think, why he was always able to talk very articulately about his painting. At each period the poets created around him the language of painting. Afterwards Pablo, who – for things like that – was an extremely adaptable, supple person, always talked very perceptively about his painting because of his intimacy with those who had been able to discover the right words.

Picasso knew how to get what he needed in order to lead an intellectual life. But he seems to have had a blindspot in intimacy that forced his artistic needs to come before anything else.

Francoise v. Herself

Though this story is owned by Francoise, I don’t see her in it too frequently. Even though she speaks in first person, it still feels like she’s a third-party reporting for a biography rather than remembering the details of her own life.* She was a painter herself, though I never learned the style, the philosophy, nor the patterns of her work ethic. She would mention that she would present one of her paintings to be critiqued by another artist, but that was the extent she revealed her art life to the reader. This book is the story of Picasso’s life, sure, but it has the unique perspective of being written by a life partner — one who entered his orbit very late into his life but still holds (or, more aptly, withholds) the knowledge of what that meant for her as a woman and an artist. Life With Picasso was written in 1964, so maybe I should blame the times for stewarding her perspective poorly, and thus, maybe her life as an artist can only be filtered through her partner’s. If only Picasso held more space for her to express the discrepancy.

*This book is written by Gilot and a journalist, so this is an unsurprising observation to make. All the same, her name is still on the byline, and it doesn’t feel as memoir-y as I would expect.